Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Meditation for the Sunday of the
Publican and the Pharisee

Our preparation for Great Lent continues today with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee: as we remembered last week, the Church in her great wisdom moves us gradually from one focus to the next. In these Pre-Lenten Sundays we are given the meaning of Lent before we actually practice the discipline of Lent. The theme for this Sunday is humility.

Our Lord Jesus told the parable of two men who went to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, one a tax collector, or Publican. The Pharisee prayed, thanking God he’s not like all the riff-raff of the world; he is thankful to God that he is not an immoral man. And he recalls his good and holy works: he fasts, he generously gives tithes. Clearly, the Pharisee is to be admired as a good and holy man who is thankful to God for the goodness of his life.

And then there’s the Publican, who stays near the back, who won’t even raise his eyes to heaven. He beats his breast, a traditional gesture of penitence, and simply prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Last week read about another tax collector, Zacchaeus, and remembered that tax collectors were despised as corrupt opportunists, traitors to their people, collaborators with the hated Romans who occupied Judea. We have every reason to believe that the Publican should have been ashamed of himself. To be a tax collector was to lead a shameful life. Not surprisingly, he prays for God’s mercy.

The startling moment in this passage comes when our Lord Jesus says that the sinful Publican is the one who is justified, or “in right relation to God” – not the righteous Pharisee. Then, He says that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” What could that possibly mean?

The monastic priest Lev Gillet, one of the great Orthodox spiritual writers of the 20th century, once observed that this is probably among the most dangerous parables Jesus told. It’s dangerous because we’re so likely misunderstand our Lord’s teaching.

We’re tempted to condemn the Pharisee, saying that even with all our sins, even though we don’t fast or pray and may not be all that generous, at least we’re not hypocrites! We’re tempted to forget that there is much about the Pharisee that is exactly right and good: our Lord told his disciples in his sermon on the mount that unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. The fact that the Pharisee practiced his piety, fasting and tithing, was not the problem.

The Pharisee’s problem concerns his lack of repentance and humility. It’s a very good thing that he’s not like the extortioners and the adulterers – but in comparing himself to them, he misses the profound truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” He may not be as bad as some, but he still falls short, he still needs God’s gracious love and mercy and forgiveness.

This is holy humility: the awareness of our need for God’s mercy, and (as we see in the parable) the humble, trusting appeal to God’s loving tenderness and mercy.

It’s often observed in the lives of the saints that the more they grow in holiness and virtue, the more deeply they enter into the way of salvation (theosis), the more profound their experience of the Jesus Prayer becomes: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The strange truth is that the closer they draw to God, the greater their sanctity, the more aware they become of their sinfulness, their neediness, their dependence on God’s mercy. They are, for us, examples of holy humility. And that’s why we practice the Publican’s prayer whenever we gather to pray: there’s not phrase we say more in any of our services than “Lord have mercy.”

Some people have said that this is a “paradox:” the closer we come to God, the more humble we become. Their argument is that it would seem that growing close to God would raise us up, make us more glorious and exalted. Humility is thus seen as a demeaning thing, something foreign to the nature of God. And yet, that perspective fundamentally misunderstands the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Who is more humble than the divine Word, the Son of God, who emptied Himself and took the form of a servant? The One who was without sin, yet who became sin for us, being nailed to the Cross, that we might be reconciled to God? Christ has taken the last place, the place of humility, the way of the Cross. And that is the Life he invites us to share. The holy mystery is that somehow, in that humility, we come to know the glory of the kingdom of heaven. That is the way of humility, the way of the Cross, the way of Life.

That raises an important question regarding how we can learn humility, how we make ourselves become humble. Sinful as we are, sometimes our striving to be humble can even become a source of pride! Truly, humility can be elusive…

But we’re given an important clue in the passage St Paul wrote to St Timothy: Pay attention to the lives of the saints, their persecutions, because “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Strive to be faithful, and because of the way the world is, you will learn humility. “Continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of in the Holy Scriptures…” follow faithfully the way we’ve been taught, and we will come to know holy humility – we will come to know the glorious salvation promised in Christ Jesus.

Glory to Him forever! Amen